Mike Miller has been running for almost 50 years now.

And he’s spent the last 28 of them encouraging the next generations of runners.

Miller, who is a retired teacher and cross country coach at Sonora Elementary School, said middle school is a great place to help young athletes find a lifelong passion for running, both for sport and a healthy lifestyle.

“You don’t have to be a ‘runner’ to be able to participate,” Miller said.

He’s had athletes who are simply curious about the sport, others who want to be part of a competitive sport, and some kids just love running.

Miller said he and his fellow coaches see running at the middle school level as a chance to introduce young people to the sport.

The idea is to make it fun while also teaching them the basics of running. he said.

“We want them to become lifelong runners,” said Miller.

With almost three decades in the cross country community here, Miller has seen plenty of students go on to find success at the high school and college level.

But he jokes it was more their genetics and drive that helped get them there.

And that’s another reason Miller says cross country is a worthy pursuit. It creates in young people the ability to see that effort directly related to success, just like everyday life.

“Yes, it’s a team sport,” he said. “But you have to be very self-driven.”

Runners are out in September, often one of the hottest months of the year. They’re training when the only tangible reward is the one they are creating for themselves.

Miller has seen many runners begin their foray into cross country running some, then walking some, then running again.

“Then later on I see them and they tell me they just finished their first marathon,” he said.

When it comes to encouraging kids to get involved, Miller said the best way to start is for parents to be a role model.

“Do it with them. Go out on a local trail.” he said. “We are blessed with many, many places to go run.”

Miller has run more than 60 long-distance races, including two 100-mile races.

And he’s still running.

“It’s a good healthy sport if it’s done right. They don’t overtrain. There are few injuries,” he said.

Last week, more than 200 middle school cross country runners were at Sonora Elementary for Rapp’s Run, an annual event Miller puts on to honor Bobby Rapp.

Rapp was a 22-year-old American soldier when he was killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2008.

Now, each October, sixth, seventh and eighth graders from cross country programs around Tuolumne and Calaveras counties gather.

Here are this year’s top runners in each grade:

Girls, grade 6

1 Mia Kjaer Sonora 10:16

2 Addy Strum Avery 10:25

3 Taylee McDaniels Avery 10:51

Boys grade 6

1 Broen Holman Curtis Creek 7:58

2 Chad Kuykendall Columbia 8:41

3 Emmett Garlington Soulsbyville 8:54

Girls, grade 7

1 Bri Personius Gold Rush 9:17

2 Taylor Edwards Sonora 9:47

3 Lauren Hughes Sonora 9:58

Boys, grade 7

1 Winter Whittle CFLC 8:35

2 Carter Walker Curtis Creek 8:44

3 Logan Gomes Toyon 8:57

Girls, grade 8

1 Sydney Remos Toyon 9:14

2 Makenna Pfeiffer Soulsbyville 9:28

3 Sage Miller Toyon 9:30

Boys, grade 8

1 Aden Dibble Curtis Creek 7:59

2 Mason Marin Sonora 8:21

3 Ben White Sonora 8:27

Tuolumne County Elementary Schools will compete in the cross country finals Oct. 25 at Wildcat Ranch in Sonora.

Miller said middle schoolers from Calaveras County programs have also been invited to compete. The races are at 4 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.